Camping Backpacks

Hiking by Lee Adcock

Camping Packs: Which is Best?

So, much like tents, the best camping backpack depends on what you plan to use it for. If you are living in a tent, you have certain needs. If you are hiking from site to site, your needs may differ. If you are camping long term, it’s actually different than both. If you just need a good backpack to camp on the weekends, or on holiday, then your choices are pretty open.

You may be thinking to yourself: “Well, Mar, I’ve got my old school bag. Why can’t I just use that?”

My response to that thought is: “If you are just out for a quick trip or a short hike, you can! If you’re doing anything more than that, however, you need something sturdier.”

Types of Camping Backpacks Based on Style of Camping:

  1. Minimalist Camping – one large single bag meant to be lived out of (the Type I will be discussing today)
  2. Weekend Camping, aka Holiday Camping – pretty much anything, but some are better than others (a post for a different day)
  3. Living in a Tent – a bag resembling Type 1, especially if you don’t also have a vehicle or secure storage
  4. Long Term Camping – preferably more than one bag, of the sturdy sort (my particular devoted specialty, but also not the topic for today)
  5. Hiking from Site to Site – much like Types 1 & 3, size dependent on length of trip and amount of stuff


Today’s topic is going to focus on the type of backpack used for Style 1,3 or 5.

Why? Because it covers the most variety, all in one type.


My example for today is this space saver:

In terms of camping sizes, this particular pack holds 80 liters worth of stuff. The actual weight, naturally, depends on if you’re stuffing it with things that are heavy, or just extra clothing and Astronaut food.     [not that I recommend only living on the blister packs of astronaut food – it tends to be more expensive than is worth it for the amount you get. I will eventually get around to covering camping food, but once I do it’s an endless parade of varieties]

One of the important aspects of this bag is that it has an internal frame. Backpack frames can be external, making you look kind of like Ripley in Aliens 2, (or Bill Murray as Slimer charges him) and I’ve always found outside frames poking me in uncomfortable spots even when I’ve put it on correctly and tightened everything the proper amount. Or – ohh the ouch – once you’ve bent over to retie your boot lace and everything shifts so the bar is digging riiiiiiight into that muscle in your back.

Another point to look for is pockets and pouches to assigned homes for everything you are bringing with you. It makes it easier to find everything, and also makes packing and inventory go much faster. Going back to my ‘nagging’ on safety: you want everything to have a place so if you get into a troublesome situation you can easily find what you need, and also quickly describe it to a friend or stranger who can help you out.

One downside to a ton of pockets is a little added weight (more fabric, naturally) and difficulty getting into certain sections while actively hiking. Personally, I’ve always found the trade-off worth it, but would love to hear your stories or arguments to the opposite. Since you don’t want to lose things over a cliff, or down a river if you’re walking through a stream, having everything as enclosed as possible is a good thing.

Another perk of envelopment is keeping everything dry. If it starts raining on your camping trip, or while you are hiking, you want to keep as many of your belongings as dry as possible. Some items we sacrifice to the damp for expediency, but for the most part camping while soaking wet isn’t fun. Once of the reasons I chose this particular bag as the example is because it comes with its own “raincoat.” So, this bag in particular already has a headstart on doing a better job at keeping everything dry.

A note about waterproofing sprays: yes they work. Yes, I use them. However, if you don’t want your stitching slowly taking in water and stretching even faster, don’t only rely on waterproofing. Use the raincoat. It does make a huge difference overall.

…. I’m also going to go a bit nerdy/ranty here: you know that scene in the new Gilmore Girls where Lorelai makes a ridiculous mess looking for her hiking pass? (it was in the trailers, too, guys). That’s not what full camping packs should look like. I get that it was a joke, but out of a whole miniseries of cringe-worthy moments, that stuck in my brain. At least Emily had positive character development (and Dean got even taller, somehow)….

Right. Back to the sci-fi references.


Waist buckles.

Do you know why Bucky connected his backpack around him when he started running in Civil War? It makes it more stable and secure. Simple as that. The character who knew what running and hiding to survive was like also knew to keep his bag connected to him (when he wasn’t throwing it between rooftops). It’s not to look dorky or nerdy or silly. [if more middle/high schoolers actually used the belt with their 20lbs of books, they’re backs and hips might not regularly hurt by college] Hipbelt or waist buckle, whatever you want to call it, once you have a bag that large (and possibly that heavy) connected to you, you want to make sure it’s going to shift and pull as little as possible. My anecdote about tying my boot? Was with the buckle fastened, and the weight change still almost knocked me over (and felt like someone was trying to stab me in the back).

Another perk of this particular bag, and some bags like it, is that the top section, like the belt, actually comes off and becomes a fanny pack. [speaking of  ‘dorky’ items – they’re advantageous when used correctly, so don’t try to be obtuse about it since it just makes them more obvious] Call it a waist pack, if it makes you feel better. Unless you’re Fiona Glenanne, your probably not going to be able to make it thin yet functional enough to look completely awesome even if it’s just a purse with the handle put through your belt loops. Accept it, pick a color you like, and use it however often you wish.

One of the important differences between these types of camping packs and basic reinforced backpacks, are the shoulder straps. It may seem minor, but after a few hours – or a few days – having a little bit more cushion can make a huge difference. Think of it this way, especially if you played a brass instrument: the strap you use to keep a saxophone from rubbing your neck raw and to help stabilize the weight feels better when it’s better cushioned. The same is true for shoulder straps on packs. Those of you who could sucker your parents into buying the ‘special’ strap liked them more, and not just because you picked the cool flaming-red design.

That cushioning is actually replicated across the parts of the pack that are meant to be in consistent contact with the body. It’s why the interior frames hurt less. It’s why the waist buckle is cushioned and not just a seatbelt across your front.

Another thing I like on my backpacks, which this one doesn’t have but not many do, is a front handle. Like on a piece of luggage where there’s another grab handle at the top or on the face. It’s just another nice way of being able to manipulate the heft of the bag. I think this is a more personal choice however, as I’m the only one I know who prefers them, and I only started wanting them on more bags as I became less able to lift things. Actually, I still don’t have a camping pack (that was designed to be a camping pack) that has one. So, yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s not something anyone else has ever considered cause what adult hikes and camps constantly when they have trouble carrying their own stuff …I do.


Now, you may be wondering why I split 1, 3 and 5 into their own categories if their bags are the same.

It’s because what you put in them are different.

How, you ask? Come see.


Living in a Tent

When you are living in a tent you literally have everything you own with you. What few belongings you kept, and what you need to be able to look presentable and get/hold a job, and your toiletries, and your tent and blankets and sleeping bag. Everything. If you have a car you can leave some of it there, especially the things specifically tied to work, etc. If you don’t, if you are truly on your own, with or without a family, you need to keep your belongings as safe and secure as possible. You also need to be able to move quickly in case someone gets the idea that you’re an easy target, so everything needs to be easily and quickly transportable. Living in a tent is hard, which is why I don’t recommend anyone new to camping try it immediately.

A bag like my example above allows for all of this. You can connect your tent and sleeping bag to the bottom, your larger kitchen supplies on the side, and even a cot on the other. 80L allows for space for almost everything, and some food too.


Hiking or Hiking between Sites

In some ways, this can be the same as living in a tent. You’ve got everything with you, and you need to be able to carry it all long distances.

You can also connect your tent and sleeping bag to the bottom, and your larger cooking supplies to the side. Your boots/water shoes can hang from the other side, whether wet or dry, and not get your belongings dirty. 80L allows you space, and if you’re with your family you can take some of the weight out of your kids’ packs which usually leads to a little less whining as they tire. If you have some help, the cooler bag for any consumables you enjoy cold can also hang fairly evenly, decreasing the risk of sudden weight shifts.

However, the belongings you need to stuff inside the pack itself are not as urgent as someone living in their tent. Even if your trip is for a few months, you don’t have the worry of keeping everything you still own physically on you as you walk. You may have a few changes of clothes, your travel toiletries, and a book for any early nights. Maybe you have more food with you, especially if you’re going to be miles from civilization for weeks at a time. You have your water filtration and extra emergency tablets, in case your trip ends up taking longer than expected.

What you carry with you is up to you, and not a matter of keeping everything in your pack because you have to.

Minimalist Camping

Minimalist campers may be Tiny House people slowly building their own home. They may be people who live in their tents for a few months at a time, but see camping more like the snowbird RVers who have belongings elsewhere but want to get away from it all for a while. They may like to climb a mountain on weekends and only bring a canteen and fishing pole with them.

Or they may just enjoy camping but don’t see any reason to carry a lot of stuff with them.

For minimalist camping (which is different from living in a tent after you’ve hocked all your belongings to pawn shops, consignment stores and on Craigslist), a pack like this actually provides a little more space than most need. However, I wanted to include them here because these packs allow for an extra blanket that stays dry, and many see the benefits to putting their sleeping bags right in their packs as they travel. It also provides a way for them to carry more premade foods, so they don’t have to bring any cooking supplies.

I, myself, have never been a minimalist camper. It’s actually the only type of camping on my list that I haven’t done. I have known several minimalist campers throughout my life, however, and can see how dedicated they are to their way of camping. It’s not wrong or weird or strange, it’s just different.

My favorite minimalist camper is actually a 1600s fur trader recreationist. He’s awesome. In his 70s and still high energy when he talks to people, friends and strangers alike. He does actually live in his set up; but has a house his kids make him live in for the holidays. As soon as he can, however, he is back in the woods, traveling across the country (and across countries – shhhhh) doing his thing and educating people on how living was back then. He actually doesn’t have a backpack, but that’s because they didn’t exist back when the French Fur Traders were wiping out raccoons from Canada and the Great Lakes Region. His type of minimalist is not for those weak in skin or spirit.

Do you have any favorite camping packs? Stories about falling in rivers? Complaints about the number of sci-fi references I discovered as I read this back? (sorry, let me know if you don’t like it) Have you met my Minimalist Camper friend in your travels?

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I'm (now) an Affiliate, who blogs about the materials, gear and supplies needed for living in a tent and long term camping: http://longtermcamping.siterubix.com I also enjoy reading and sci-fi in all its many forms.

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